Much in the same way that monosodium glutamate (MSG) enhances umami flavors in things like soy sauce, Sweetmyx enhances the sweet factor of other sugars in a soda, like sucrose and high fructose corn syrup, so food producers can use less sugar and cut calories without taking away any of the sweetness that people like.
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Sweetmyx was developed using proprietary technologies, and there isn't much information about what exactly it is or what it may have been derived from. "From what I’ve been able to surmise, S617 (the company's moniker for Sweetmyx) is not a naturally derived sweetness enhancer. It appears to be artificially synthesized from chemicals," says Bruce Bradley, a former food-industry marketer who wrote an expose of the industry's tricks called Fat Profits.
Generally recognized as safe…but not by the FDA.
What's interesting about Sweetmyx is that it appears to be going to market without any real involvement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When Senomyx first announced that Sweetmyx would be commercialized, it relased a statement saying, "Sweetmyx has been determined to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, administered by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)."
Shortly afterwards, the FDA issued a rebuke to the company stating that "the agency had not made this determination nor had it been notified by Senomyx regarding a GRAS determination for this food ingredient."
Why the confusion? Sweetmyx is considered a flavor ingredient, which means that it doesn't need to go through any sort of FDA approval process to get to market. These flavor ingredients can be evaluated by an independent third party and, if they meets that body's criteria, that third-party evaluator gives it GRAS status and doesn't even need to notify the FDA that the ingredient has passed muster. In this case, the third party is the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States, an organization made up of flavor manufacturers and other industry members. This association determined that Sweetmyx was safe, based on computer modeling and safety data provided by Senomyx. So, essentially, it's the industry regulating itself.
Sweetmyx embodies all that is wrong with the way the FDA regulates (or doesn't) food additives, writes Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Paulette Goddard Professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, in her FoodPolitics.com blog. "Manufacturers get to decide whether food additives are safe or not. Manufacturers get to decide whether to bother to tell the FDA the additives are in the food supply, and even if they do. Manufacturers get to decide who sits on the panels that review the evidence for safety."
"Although I haven’t seen the safety testing Senomyx has conducted, Sweetmyx is yet another troubling example of how big food and beverage companies approach the issue of food and health," adds Bradley. "Excessive consumption, which drives higher corporate profits, is the heart of Big Food’s business model. To achieve this goal more and more minimally tested additives are being introduced into our food supply with questionable concern for the long-term health consequences for consumers."
Don't look for it on labels.
Like many other flavor enhancers, Sweetmyx can be lumped under the umbrella term "artificial flavors" and won't need to be labeled on its own. But it could also be lumped under the "artificial sweetener" label. Either way, it's unlikely you'll ever see the word "Sweetmyx" appear on an ingredients list.
And although Pepsi currently has exclusive rights to use the ingredient in non-alcoholic drinks, another company in Switzerland is using it to develop flavor enhancers that may eventually wind up in alcoholic drinks, baked goods, cereals, dairy products, candies, snack foods and condiments, according to a press release from Senomyx.
Fake sweetness isn't good for anyone.
Tricking your taste buds with artificial sweetness, whether from an artificial sweetener like aspartame or a sweetness enhancer, may keep a few calories out of your diet, but an emerging body of evidence suggests that it's not keeping you thin. Your gut has sweet receptors just like your tongue does, and research from Susan Swithers, PhD, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University and a leading researcher on artificial sweeteners, has shown that your gut gets confused when you eat super-sweet artificial sweeteners. The sweet taste sends a signal to your gut that something high calorie is on its way, so your gut anticipates foods that do, in fact, have a high calorie count. But when those don't arrive, your gut doesn't utilize the foods efficiently, and that causes a cascading effect that interferes with your body's hunger signals, including insulin levels that go haywire.
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Plus, as Anne Alexander writes in her best-selling book The Sugar Smart Diet, super-sweet flavors dull your taste buds, and after being exposed to them for too long, you begin to get less receptive to natural sweetness found in fruit. So you turn to processed foods for evermore intense sugar sensations. Is it any surprise that a recent study found that food addicts are like drug addicts?